While it’s not likely that this year’s fire season will cause a citywide power shutdown in Tracy, the possibility prompted the state’s utility and municipal leaders to come up with a contingency plan should the city be left in the dark.
Tuesday’s Tracy City Council meeting featured a presentation by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. public affairs representative Dylan George, followed by statements from the city’s department directors, assuring the council that the city is prepared to continue operating should PG&E have to shut down a significant part of the power grid.
Cal Fire investigators blame last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County, a wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people, on sparks from PG&E power lines. The blaze also showed how hot, dry conditions and strong winds can quickly overwhelm all efforts to control wildfires.
George explained that PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff program is the utility’s strategy to monitor fire risk and reduce that risk with stepped-up safety inspections on power lines, and then shut down electrical lines when weather conditions create peak fire danger.
George reminded city officials of the fire risk that Tracy faces. PG&E considers the Central Valley as Tier 1, meaning there is a low risk of fire. The highest risks for wildfire are in Tier 3 areas, such as the Sierra foothills, where vegetation is plentiful and tends to become tinder-dry by late summer.
“Last year, we only considered shutting off areas that were considered Tier 3. We’ve now expanded that into Tier 2, which is the elevated fire danger zones,” George said. “We’ve also expanded the program to include the possibility, if necessary, of shutting off the transmission lines. That’s why a community like Tracy could be affected, because they could be linked to transmission sources that are in high fire areas and might need to be shut down.
“This is something that’s more likely to happen as we get later into the fire season, and possibly in the fall months,” George said, adding that the fire risk continues until the state gets its first significant rainfall.
He went on to describe how PG&E detects fire hazards, including a network of sensors and cameras. He added that once the power is out, PG&E works to inspect power lines and make sure everything is safe before making those lines active again.
In addition to George’s presentation, the council heard from the city department heads who would be called upon to keep the city running in case of an emergency.
Tracy’s interim police chief, Capt. Alex Neicu, told the council that the police and fire departments had their own emergency plans already and would work with other San Joaquin County agencies to plan for long-term power outages.
“Both Tracy Police Department and the fire stations are all running on backup generators so we would not lose power. We would maintain our ability to respond to calls,” Neicu said. “Probably the most visible impact would be response time. We anticipate that we would see a significant increase in calls for service. We would be able to still respond to calls, but the response times are going to be increased somewhat.”
Utilities director Kul Sharma said his priority would be to keep the municipal water supply — which comes from a South San Joaquin Irrigation District pipeline, the Delta-Mendota Canal and four city wells — flowing to customers.
Without PG&E service, the wells would be the only reliable source of water.
“Each well, at full production, can give us enough water to supply the city’s demands,” Sharma said.
However, the city would immediately shut off water to parks and city landscaping to conserve the supply. In an extended power shutdown, major industrial and commercial customers could be cut off while residential customers would be asked to conserve water for the duration of the shutdown.
Sharma added later that Sutter Tracy Community Hospital was included in the city’s emergency plans.
“They were mostly concerned about water,” Sharma said, “so I reassured them that water would be available to them, and they were also asking about wastewater and sewer. My understanding is they do have a generator on-site.”
Sewer service would continue with generators and holding tanks. Most traffic signals stop working in a power outage and become four-way stops, but the city does have 10 major intersections where generators could keep traffic lights functioning normally for three or four hours, and three of them could function for eight to 10 hours.
Public works director Don Scholl said that the city’s Boyd Service Center could continue to operate on generators, and it has fuel tanks that can hold up to 9,000 gallons of regular gas for city vehicles and 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
He added that cellular service providers are required to have a minimum of eight hours of battery backup to keep their service active.
Scholl said the city would set up temporary cooling stations at the community center on East Street and the transit station at Sixth Street and Central Avenue.
Public comment following the presentation focused on how vulnerable people, including those with medical needs, would be affected by a power shutdown and how PG&E would help them. People also asked whether the risk is here to stay into future years.
“When power is turned off, there is a public safety risk that comes along with that. This is not a decision that PG&E takes lightly,” George said. “We have to weigh the public safety risk of potential fires that can start from our equipment against the public safety risk of turning off the power.
“As to the question, ‘Is this the new normal?’ — wildfire danger in our state has continued to increase, and so for the time being, unfortunately, yes,” George said, adding that PG&E was working to reduce the extent to which portions of the statewide power grid would need to be shut off.
Councilman Dan Arriola said he had no doubt that the city’s response to a power outage would be effective.
“I have a whole lot less confidence in PG&E,” Arriola said. “This entire public safety power shutdown protocol really is because of the Camp Fire, and PG&E really contributed to what became the deadliest fire in California history, and that’s where we are today, and that why people in this community are afraid, because we saw this happen before.”
Mayor Robert Rickman asked George what plans were in place for a PG&E resource center in south San Joaquin County. George said that discussion involved city staff members and the county’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We’ve gotten the discussion going. We don’t have a site yet,” George said. “A lot of it would depend on the specifics of the event, how wide the area of folks affected by a shutdown event would be.”
Rickman also asked how long a Tier 1 area like Tracy might be without power.
“If you’re talking a week or two weeks, it’s extremely unlikely it would be anything like that,” George said. “Anything as long as four or five days is unlikely. That would take a real serious, unusual kind of event to lead to something like that, for a Tier 1 community to be affected to that extent.”
George also emphasized early in the meeting that PG&E’s strategy included notifying local governments and residents well ahead of time if a power shutdown was imminent.
“Our goal is to give our customers 48 hours of notice before we have to turn off the electricity,” George said. “We have not always been able to meet this because at times a weather event has come on us quicker than we anticipated. We’ve always been able to give at least 36 hours of notice in any event, and we want to get as close to that 48 as we possibly can, and then we want to give another 24 hours to let our customers know that, yes, the threat is still there for wildfire danger and it looks like you may be without power. Then, again, you would get notice just before the electricity is turned off.”
The utility plans to rely on automated messaging systems that can send out phone messages, emails and texts to all the utility’s customers. In advance of a crisis, PG&E hopes to have accurate contact information for as many people as possible.
“If there’s one message that I could leave citizens with, it’s make sure we have your latest contact information,” he said, “because we really want to give you as much notice as we can, but if we don’t have a good phone number for you, we won’t be able to find you.”